The other day we had a kid here in the studio with us: Abby, 9-year-old niece of my sister-in-law. In addition to being bright, friendly and astonishingly energetic, Abby reminded me of something I'm embarrassed to admit I'd forgotten.
She was drawing with Penny, exploring all the paints and supplies at the art table. She eventually decided to draw a Pokemon character. Abby did a great job with the outline, and even got most of the details drawn in nicely, but paused when she came to the eyes.
"I'm not good at drawing eyes," she said flatly, and I winced. I didn't say it out loud, because I know enough to know that my Gems of Old Man Wisdom are not what kids are dying to hear, but I thought loudly in my head: "What?! You're nine! You're way too young to declare yourself "bad" at anything!"
Penny did a better job handling it, of course, and showed Abby the tips and techniques for getting the eyes looking right. Abby was attentive and patient, of course, and ended up satisfied with her art. Meanwhile I went back to my work, thinking how glad I am to have figured out that not every moment is a teachable one.
But maybe it was. I started to learn a little something, as I made a mental note to prevent my kid, when I have one, from selling him- or herself short. I'll insist that we say instead, "I'm not very good at that yet."
Always add the "yet." That way, you leave room for improvement. Nine years old is just way too young to shrug and dismiss something as "Ehh... not really my bag. Maybe I should take up something easier."
I'd read that this is why so many kids give up art, you know? Think about it: we all drew as kids, but only a few of us still do. At some point -- and Abby's right about at the most common age -- we hang it up, heading off to pursue other interests like sports or video games or trying to get your saliva to dangle almost to the ground, but not quite.
The article I read said that it's an unfortunate stage in the process: as kids we start drawing because we like to see the lines form, and then keep it up because we're fascinated that we can now represent things, real or imaginary. We experiment with colors and mediums, maybe venture into a little lipstick-on-drywall muraling. It's fun.
And then, one day, we stop. The article said it happens when we progress enough to judge our own work, and evaluate it against the objects we were trying to represent. "It doesn't look right," kids usually say. "It's just not right."
Now, even though our art is far better than it was when we started -- when we loved to create it -- it's not good enough. It doesn't look like the real thing. Sometimes at this stage we notice that other kids (like Penny) can draw a convincing bird, or truck, or mountain, and we get discouraged.
We decide that those kids are good at art, and we're not. Our artistic career is over before it started.
And this is normal. We can't all be artists when we grow up, right? And after all, as long as you find some other interest -- some other thing you are "good at," by your own estimation -- you're okay. But why should we give up on art? Even if you can't make a living at it (maybe even especially if you can't make a living at it), it's still fun to create things just because you can, and because you want to see how it turns out.
Being good at it really isn't the point. Under ideal circumstances I write because I like to; when I do it only because it pays the bills and I can't see any other marketable skills in my repertoire, I don't enjoy it, and what I write isn't very interesting.
It's all mental, just assembling words to fit the assignment -- solving the puzzle instead of creating something new. Often I don't even attempt to create anything new, rather just looking for the answer within the question. That's not because I don't want to create; it's because I don't think I'm "good at it."
We give up on ourselves, in ways we'd never give up on somebody else. Even the daughter of the sister of the wife of my wife's brother isn't allowed to down herself like that around me, and even though I told you I bit my tongue it's not entirely true.
"Look, Abby," I finally sighed. "If the point of art was to make your drawing look exactly like the Pokemon, then why not just take a picture?"
She didn't have an answer, but it didn't matter. I hadn't convinced her, any more than I'm usually able to convince myself. However, I'm happy to say that Penny did make some headway. She showed Abby some of her work, which doesn't look just like the thing it's a painting of. It's beautifully, colorfully, gloriously inaccurate, and it goes off to hang in "fancy galleries in New Hampshire," as Penny explained, and no picture I've ever taken is half as perfect as any one of her artworks.
Even Abby could see that. I hope she keeps making art. She starts ballet next year, and I know that can be pretty intense, so maybe art will fall by the wayside and dancing will become "her thing." But maybe one day she'll come back to it, and draw something just because she wants to, and not be mean to however it turns out. Maybe she'll even like it -- the drawing, and drawing itself.
I do hope so. I wish I could have said the right thing to her, the thing that would have ensured this ultimate outcome, but I didn't. I knew I didn't know much about kids or what to say to them, or -- really, given my many humbling realizations over the past several years -- about life at all.
I don't see things I ought to see when they're in front of me. And I don't always know how to put them into words that make sense, so I can remember and learn and help other people understand. I don't usually recognize when I'm reasoning through all my projects, and abandoning the creative discovery that got me into this in the first place. I don't know when I've got something to say, or when I just need to ramble until I get there.
I try, and I like trying, which is important, but I guess I'm just not very good at that stuff.